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IN PURSUIT OF EXCELLENCE

03/16/2012 12:03 AM - Fabian Brunnstrom is willing to pay the price to earn his place in the National Hockey League.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Fabian Brunnstrom is hot on the trail of the flawless hockey stick.

He knows he may never find it, but it’s not going to stop him from trying.

“I’ve been working on my sticks for my whole career, and I still haven’t gotten it right,” he said recently, taking a break from his perpetual pursuit. “I’m looking to make the perfect one. I know how I want it, but it’s hard to do it in reality.”

He is focused on this particular day not on the curve of the blade but on how it rests on the ice. Or more precisely, on how it does not touch the ice.

“When I’m standing on the toe, I want more of the blade to lay on the ice,” he continued, positioning his body as if he were ready to take a faceoff. “I need to straighten it out, but it affects the other angle.”

Brunnstrom admits that it may be a never-ending quest. “I guess so,” he said. “But I want to make it as good as it can be.”

In many ways, the story of his career is not much different.

It was not long ago that a future in the National Hockey League was the furthest thing from his mind. And yet, through a lot of hard work and dedication, he went from fast food to fast ice in the relatively short span of a couple of years.

Brunnstrom is the epitome of a late bloomer. He was languishing in the lower divisions of the Swedish hockey hierarchy when he had an epiphany to his true potential.

He decided he wanted to be as good as he could be.

“I worked at Burger King when I was 19 or 20 years old, and I made a decision,” he said. “I asked myself what I wanted to do with my life. I realized I wanted to give hockey a good chance.”

At the same time, he met a Russian skater who was playing in Sweden. His name was Sergei Marchkov, a player 12 years his senior, who had developed his skills in Russia before moving to Sweden.

“When I first saw him, I was amazed,” Brunnstrom recalled. “He was so fast, and watching him handle the puck, I was amazed at how he played the game.”

Marchkov became one of Brunnstrom’s mentors. “I wanted to be able to do all those things that he did.”

The two became inseparable.

“It was just him and me on the ice, alone, in the early mornings,” Brunnstrom said. “He showed me some things and I was like, ‘Wow, this is really hard stuff.’ I realized if you want to become good at something, you need to train and work hard.”

Brunnstrom was ready for that commitment. He trained three or four times a day for a couple of years.

“I started to get better as I learned those things,” Brunnstrom said. “I got better and better all the time and I realized that maybe I had a chance to be a hockey player after all.”

He had a breakout season with the second-tier Allsvenskan club in 2006-07, when he recorded a league-leading 73 points in 41 games. After he was promoted to the Swedish Elite League the following season, he began garnering attention from the NHL.

Undrafted by the NHL, Brunnstrom was suddenly in demand. Negotiations were rumored with not only the Detroit Red Wings, but also the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks.

“The NHL was always my dream, so when I got the chance to come here, I didn’t hesitate,” he said.

In the end, he signed with the Dallas Stars, figuring his chances might be better there.

Brunnstrom was a healthy scratch during the Stars’ first two games of the 2008-09 season, which only heightened the hype surrounding his debut. He did not disappoint.

On Oct. 15, 2008, Brunnstrom became only the third player in NHL history to score a hat trick in his first game. He might have scored a fourth goal, but the referee ruled his whistle had blown before the puck trickled past the goalie.

“I remember thinking before the game that it would be nice to score a goal and then the first one came, then a second, and finally the third. It was just surreal.”

In hindsight, he couldn’t have started out his career in a worse way.

“When I think back, I think it would have helped if there hadn’t been so much hype about me,” he said. “The hype brought me to the NHL, but at the same time it was very hard to live up to the expectations.”

He was not the next Sidney Crosby. Of course, he didn’t help matters with his hat trick debut. He can laugh about it now. “I guess I set the bar a little too high,” he said somewhat wistfully.

Brunnstrom finished the year with a respectable total of 17 goals, but he admits that he may not have been totally ready for the NHL. He was sent down to the AHL’s Texas Stars the following year, then injuries and a coaching change in Dallas kept him there until he was sent to Toronto in a midseason trade last year.

He never saw action with the Maple Leafs, spending the rest of the 2010-11 season in the AHL with the Marlies.

Ready for a fresh start, Brunnstrom signed a pro tryout contract with Detroit last August. He felt his style of play might be a good fit with the Red Wings, given their emphasis on puck possession and devotion to highly skilled players.

“I’ve always liked the way they played and I wanted to be one of those guys on the team, even though I knew it is one of the hardest lineups to break into,” he said.

He made the Red Wings’ roster out of camp but was a healthy scratch for all but one of Detroit’s first nine games. He was put on waivers and bounced between the Motor City and Grand Rapids while he and his wife, Sandy, awaited the birth of their first baby.

“I tried to focus on the game when I was on the ice, but at the same time it was something in the back of my head because it was going to happen sooner or later,” he said.

Their son, Alexander, was born on Dec. 1, and Brunnstrom was happy to settle down a bit. He admits that he felt exhausted, even emotionally, by the whole experience.

“I’ve slept eight hours my whole life, and now it’s two hours at a time before you have to get up,” he said. “It’s kind of hard (but) my wife is very nice to me, so she takes care of most of the nights.”   

He is not complaining. “When you see that smile in the middle of the night, you don’t feel tired any more,” he said. “He’s starting to laugh and trying to talk and almost every day something new is happening. It’s just amazing to watch him develop.”

Meanwhile, Brunnstrom is doing his best to develop himself while waiting for his chance.

“I want to play hockey until I’m 40,” he said. “Many players stop developing when they reach a certain age, but I’m not planning to stop until I’m done. I want to be a prospect as long as I play.”

And so he is intent on improving himself in every aspect of the game, working every detail in the same way that he tweaks his hockey stick, reshaping every angle in hopes of making a more desirable model.

“It’s getting closer and closer,” he said.

With sandpaper, files and other tools at his disposal, he will continue working on his stick until he gets it right. “Eventually I will send the stick in and they will make 20 of them,” he declared.

Of course, he’s done this before – many times. “I’ve probably had 10 different models of my stick so far,” he said.

He will work on a stick for weeks, trying it on the ice, looking for something different, searching for that edge that will make him, by extension, a better player.

“I know what I want, but it’s almost like I need a computer to get it 100 percent right,” he said. “As a player, I need to keep working. I’m just trying to get better every day until I’m done.”


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